Mena House, Giza, Egypt, Early January 1888
A fine pink haze settled over the Giza plateau, softening the late afternoon sun's glare. The majestic pyramids sat stately and eternal in the near distance, symbols of power, authority and mystery for centuries, their dun colored bricks a stark contrast to the robin's egg blue of the sky. The black shapes of tourists milled about the pyramids' base. She could only hope this batch would be respectful and leave the natural wonder as they found it. Below, the jovial chatter of the Mena House gardeners reached her ears and brought a smile to her lips. Egypt, in all its many facets, never ceased to be a source of amazement.
Perfection. Glorious. Humbling.
Joy Debinham leaned out farther over the railing. Her gaze fell on a tall man, his long legs encased in khaki trousers. The sleeves of his white work shirt were rolled to his elbows revealing deeply tanned skin, while brown leather braces crisscrossed his back. As he gestured to his male companion, the fabric pulled taut across a pair of broad shoulders. From her perch on the second floor, she admired his thick black hair, parted on one side, and the wink of the sun on his spectacles. She'd not seen him around the hotel grounds before, but he had potential to be devastating to any female he came into contact with. She couldn't stop a sigh of appreciation from escaping.
As if he heard the soft exhalation of breath, he turned and glanced up, directly at her. Their gazes locked. A flash of intimate connection buzzed between them. Urgent heat seeped into her body, tingling between her thighs, hardening her nipples and awakening sensations she thought long dead.
Before she could respond, do much more than gape, he bowed slightly with a tiny mocking grin curving his sensuous lips, and then he walked down one of the garden paths and out of her sight.
What must it be like to kiss those lips or be held by those strong arms? Chastising herself for such foolish thoughts, she perched on her chair, picking up her teacup with a shaking hand. It had been so long since she'd felt needed by a man, yet getting caught up in such a sticky web meant nothing except heartache.
But, oh, how wonderful it had been!
Once again gazing upon the Great Pyramid, she sighed. What must it have been like to be alive when Egypt thrived under a pharaoh's rule, to watch the nobility parade through the streets in their fine gold and lapis jewelry and see the fantastic headdresses and staffs? As she heaved a sigh, Joy propped an elbow on the railing and plopped her head in her hand. At times, the romance of Egypt sank into her soul and mocked her lonely state.
Why shouldn't she have the opportunity of marriage or, at the very least, a man with whom to pass the cool nights? She snorted at the incongruity of the thought. Because every man she'd met since living in Egypt did nothing to make her heart race--except for the nameless gentleman she'd spied moments earlier. Just the thought of him caused her core to throb in acute desire. She wanted a man who would fix his attention upon her and never let it waver. She'd already seen what wandering interests did to her parents' marriage and wanted none of the same.
It didn't matter what she wished for in the romantic realm. She lived for her work. Anything else could not be contemplated. She wanted to be that undeniably important reason for living and have the luxury of being the same. For now, her charity work would have to suffice.
While she stared, a great cloud of dust rose up from the pyramid's base. It filtered through the air, obscuring the clear vision she previously enjoyed. Joy straightened to her full height and frowned. "Good gad. The camel racers have returned." Though the races had been around for decades, she considered them too commercial to be played out in front of the majesty of Egypt's iconic monuments. Tourists flocked to gamble on the racers, which in turn besmirched the plateau with litter and trash. The annoyance boiled in her blood. Today would be the day camel racing stopped on the plateau--or at least it would halt for a few hours to alleviate her current ire.
Patience never being one of the virtues she practiced, Joy left her cream-and-gold accented room, slamming the door behind her. She raced along the hallway, the Oriental runner muffling her footsteps. As she tore down the polished wooden main staircase, she ignored the surprised glances cast her way from patrons in the grand lobby. Her gaze briefly connected with that of a red-haired female whose curious expression triggered an avalanche of chills down her spine.
She shook her head and put the troublesome Viola Rathesborne from her mind. I have no time for drama. The sharp report from her heels cut through the soft buzz of conversation around tea trays. She gained the wide verandah and threaded her way through the outdoor tables, again ignoring the questioning glances. Her focus remained on that cloud of dust.
As soon as she reached the manicured lawn, she hitched up her cumbersome skirts and ran up the hill that sat in front of the Mena House hotel. It was the quickest route to the pyramid complex, but the most ungainly. She had no time to spare going around the grounds and following the path especially made for such a trip.
Once on the plateau, her boots sank into the sand and made running difficult yet not impossible. Another race appeared ready to begin with five camels lined up on one end. The riders wore Arabic dress, their heads wrapped in turbans and veiled to protect their faces from sand and sun. Colorful blankets covered the camels' backs to guard against saddle sores. Clusters of tourists and racing enthusiasts bordered the strip of land designated as the course, and a man, presumably the official of the monstrosity, stood at the other end, waiting. The setting sun glanced off the metal parts of the harnesses and reins, adding gaiety to the gathering.
"Over my dead body!"
The rage that had steadily built during the hike hit a boiling point while she marched across the sand. Joy reached the race course just as the official waved a white flag. Camels thundered in her direction. Heart pounding and sweat drenching her back, she ran in what she hoped was a route conducive to safety. As it was, she had a hard time discerning this due to the dust and ever-present grit in the air.
Hooves thumped the ground as the riders hurtled through the sand, adding to the cloud of dust. One in particular galloped into her path and Joy froze, trying to anticipate where he'd move. A flash of the sun winked off his face. Did he wear ... spectacles? The odd thought occupied her brain. Then he was upon her. A cry of terror tore from her throat. Her heart hammered. Her mouth went dry, but he didn't stop. Instead, the rider bent, caught her around the waist with one arm and hauled her across his saddle as if she were little more than a rug.
"Unhand me this instant!" She struggled but the pommel cut into her side and his free hand pressed her firmly down. Her legs swung against the animal while her cheek rested against the man's muscular thigh. Her body jostled; the metal bits of the harness jingled when he urged the camel into a trot. She had no recourse except to shut her eyes against the flying sand and grit. Tingles crept along her skin from the firm weight of his hand on her back.
Long minutes later, the camel slowed and she cracked open her eyes. They'd traveled a fair distance. Joy glanced at the sky and groaned. He'd carried her to the opposite side of the pyramids, away from the bustle of tourists and the constant cry of Egyptian children clamoring for baksheesh, or charity money, too far removed from the camel race that the men could be of assistance in a pinch. From this location, she recognized their colorful saddle blankets but doubted they'd be able to hear.
She'd be alone with this man with no one available to help or even hear her if she screamed. The thought sent cold chills over her skin that quickly vanished in the face of prickles of anticipation. What would he do?
Though the rider had reined in his animal, it came to a lurching halt, protesting human handling with a hideous bellow. Before she had time to clutch at the man's robes, they both went flying over the camel's head and tumbled to the sand in a cloud of dust.
The warmth from the sun-baked sand seeped through the back of her clothes as she struggled with the tangle of skirts and the unexpected weight of the man on top of her. His turban had knocked askew and the part he'd wrapped around his face hung loose. She blinked in confusion, staring at a strong jaw shadowed with stubble, a slightly crooked nose that had undoubtedly been broken at one time and eyes so rich and brown they resembled the finest Arabian coffee. He indeed wore spectacles. They sat at a rakish angle on the bridge on that aristocratic nose.
A gasp of recognition escaped as she muddled through the turban and robe. "You!" He was the man from the garden! Maybe it was the heat; maybe it was the residual effects of her anger from the races; maybe it was the familiar feel of having the hardness of a very male body pressed against her or perhaps it was a combination, but in the seconds she felt his breath on her cheek, thrilled over the dimpled indention in his chin and spied the sensual line of his lips, she made a quick decision. For one last time, she'd take what she wanted and damn the consequences. She might not have another chance for such a scandalous rendezvous, especially knowing her companion, Jillian, could come looking for her at any time. The threat of discovery added a thread of excitement to the predicament.
His gaze met hers, angry, smoldering with the hint of a challenge. "We meet again." With the barest of mocking smiles, he moved a hand to cup a breast, boldly brushing his fingers over its curve. Rivulets of liquid heat flowed through her body, pebbling her nipples, tingling between her thighs. His thumb found a hardened bud, tormented it through her clothing. His mocking smile grew.
"Bastard." In that second, she accepted his unspoken challenge. She gripped his shoulders and tugged him down until her lips touched his. Strong and firm, at first he did nothing except pull slightly away to linger, his breath a steamy dream against her skin, then he grunted and took control, kissing her with enthusiasm.
The hand not kneading her breast snaked beneath her head in the sand to cup her skull, holding her tighter to him. His mouth moved over hers with experience and confidence, teasing her lower lip, nibbling at the corners until she opened for him. When the silky heat of his tongue touched hers, she gasped, but that only allowed him to deepen the kiss, probe her mouth with intimate knowledge that awakened shivery sensation inside her soul. Warmth tumbled through her body, a languid river of sensation she'd not known since...
No. This couldn't be allowed to happen again. The last time had been too devastating.
Planting her palms against his hard chest, she pushed him away and scrambled out from under him as best she could with the cumbersome skirts. "I trust the spill you took will make you rethink another camel race. Doing so mocks the integrity and sanctity of this site. Do you understand?" Her chest heaved as she stood. Sand trickled beneath her collar and worked into her boots, but the irritation couldn't block the blatant need that gripped her. That one touch had the power to undo her.
"Ah, I see. You attempt to take advantage then mount that high and mighty horse and rain a lecture down upon my head." His deep baritone highlighted an American accent. He got to his feet and proceeded to brush the sand and dust from his robe. "I could have won that damn race. There's not a better camel in all of Egypt." Western-style trousers peeked from beneath the robe's hem along with boots instead of sandals.
Joy shrugged. Undeniably handsome, his intense gaze played havoc with her insides. Dangerous. Powerful. Intoxicating. She swallowed, but her throat remained dry. "We don't always get what we want." She backed away from him as quick as the sand would allow. "Better luck next time." She glanced around the immediate area. The race had ended and the crowds, having had their curiosity satisfied, thinned and dispersed to other parts of the attraction. The camel racers stood clustered together talking and laughing, apparently unconcerned one of their numbers was elsewhere. "I apologize for thwarting your plans, but something had to be done." She refused to spend another second thinking about how nice his lips had felt on hers or how comforting his body had been--or how much it would take to coax his hand onto her breast once more.
The man readjusted his spectacles. His eyes narrowed behind the lenses. "You cost me a great deal of money today, woman. I won't forget that--or your kiss." Without another word, he turned and stalked away. A shrill whistle brought his camel trotting to his side. As if there were springs in his feet, he vaulted into the saddle and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Joy shivered even though the afternoon air was on the backside of stifling. He'd left a spark deep in her core that set flame to the dry kindling she'd become inside over the years. She'd almost destroyed her life then. She refused to repeat that mistake. The cost was too high.
Several hours later, as guests staying at Mena House gathered for dinner on the Giza plateau, Joy walked along the Causeway that led to the Great Pyramid. She'd managed to elude her companion on the pretense of taking a quick walk with the promise to return in time for the entrees. Cool air tickled her cheeks, a stark change from the heat of the day. Egypt after sunset was a different beast entirely. Stars twinkled overhead while the darkness had a tendency to be all-consuming if one wasn't used to its solitude.
Disinclined to keep the promise to her companion and partake of dinner or invent small talk with people she detested, she headed toward the monuments. Her lightweight wool shirtwaist dress kept the bulk of the chill from her skin, much different than standard evening wear would, but satins and silks were no match for rough stones and bat guano-covered passageways. Not to mention donning evening gowns constituted the addition of a corset. That she wanted to avoid at all costs.
Taking in the artwork from an ancient civilization, admiring something greater than herself, reminding her why she remained in Egypt, would set her mind to rights and help to forget what had been a trying day.
At the last second, she veered off the main road and threaded her way through a field of rock cut tombs and mastabas--underground crypts--in the general direction of the smaller of the three pyramids, Menkaure's. Not in the mood for the pageantry of Khafre's tomb, she figured the lesser known pyramid would suit her confused thoughts just fine. During moments when she needed a place for reflection and solitude, she often spent time in that pyramid, alone with her musings. Weak illumination from her lantern cast eerie shadows off the raised chunks of rock that delineated tombs from the ever-present sand.
The monument was never finished as its occupant had died too early. The haphazard construction and lack of limestone casing blocks on the outside meant heightened crumbling from age, but to Joy, the weathering gave it character and personality. It had seen hardships and stood the test of time. So she hoped she had done as well.
Nearly at the smaller Causeway and well out of range of the fires and lights of the dinner party, she collided with man scurrying at a fast rate through the cemetery. Without a light of his own, she hadn't seen him until it was too late. His arms went around her waist to keep her from falling then he gripped her hips and held her away as she raised her lantern. "Max? What are you doing here? I was unaware you'd arrived in Cairo."
"Ah, the lovely Joy Debinham. Imagine running into you, quite literally, here in the shadows, and all alone."
Max Smithfield had been a thorn in her side since she'd met him three years ago. A wastrel and a rogue with more money than common sense, he wintered in Egypt--not to take in the sights--but to game at all the best tables in the bigger cities and steal as many female hearts as he could before returning home to England. He'd tried to court her once. She'd put a stop to it in no uncertain terms and made a point of snubbing him in polite circles ever since.
She continued to stare, searching her mind for something to say. "Egypt is, after all, a land full of surprises."
The dislike that had sprung up from her public coldness had been returned in kind and he never missed an opportunity to utter set downs during dinners or parties. The fact he was equally skilled in stealing pieces of Egyptian history was another reason for her avoidance. She'd reported him to the Egyptian Museum and the Egyptian authorities for illegally smuggling small artifacts out of the country, which had much to do with his current animosity. However, the Egyptian police had done little about it, but it had been the English military who'd finally given him a strict warning.
Chances are Max hadn't forgotten.
"So it is, but then, you always seem to be in the exact place where you have no business being."
She'd not forgotten either but at least he would think twice about trafficking antiquities. "Coincidence, nothing more."
"Hmm." His blue eyes glittered and his breath reeked of gin. "Could it be you have changed your mind and decided to seek me out after all this time?" He ran his palms along her sides to as if to emphasize his intent.
She fought off a shiver and stepped clear of his hold. "Hardly, as the Egyptian Gazette hasn't reported that Hell froze over." She peered more closely into his face. A trace of fear had entered his expression before he hid it away behind his mask of customary boredom. "Why are you out here? Menkaure's pyramid isn't one most people visit."
"I wasn't interested in the pyramid. I wanted a look at the temple ruins. I'm tossing around the idea of financing an Egyptologist and his dig team." As he stared past her, he visibly relaxed and ran the elegant fingers of one hand through his sandy blond hair. "I have been visiting sites to determine if I have enough interest."
"Is that right?" She narrowed her eyes. Why was he so relieved? Fleeing from someone? "Financing does not imply being present on a dig. Besides, the Museum has already assigned sites for the season. You would need to wait for next winter."
Max straightened the lapels of his ivory linen suit. "You don't know everything that happens behind the scenes in Egypt, Joy. It would be in your best interests not to inquire into my activities too closely."
Her stomach clenched from the implication. "Is that a threat, Mr. Smithfield?" How dare the man!
"Interpret it how you like, but I'd advise you to never find yourself alone in any part of this country again. Others are not as respectful of females as I am. And may I remind you, I'm a great ... friend to the Cairo police." He touched the brim of his straw hat. "Good evening, Miss Debinham." After shoving his hands into his trouser pockets, he strolled through the cemetery toward the dinner party, whistling as he went.
Respectful my eye. It seemed the evening would match the day in unsavory dealings. Pushing the incident from her mind, she hurried through the remainder of the tombs. When she reached the lesser Causeway, she breathed a small sigh of relief. Two men passed her on the path; she recognized them as guards in the British military who regularly patrolled the Cairo streets. Had Max been running from them? His return to Egypt unsettled her more than it should and not because of his veiled threat. Men like Max didn't care who they hurt in order to further their own gain.
She reached the funerary temple that marked the entrance to Menkaure's pyramid. Ravaged by nature, the reliefs here had succumbed to the elements or enterprising tourists who had the habit of carrying away pieces of artwork as free souvenirs. Joy sneered at the thought and anger rose in her chest. Egypt's treasures were being raped more frequently as time went on while men like Max sought to finance the effort.
How to stem the tide, or was it already too late?
She went through the stone doorway and walked along the entrance passageway. The feeble light from her lantern kept her company in the complete darkness. Her steps echoed as she descended the slight downward slope. Soon, she passed through a paneled chamber lined with false doors. Flaking gold winked in her lantern light. Beyond the chamber was another passage. This section never failed to cause shivers to break out over her skin as she gazed upward into the gloom. Dark empty spaces indicated the spots where heavy portcullis blocks used to be as a deterrent to ancient tomb robbers.
She imagined the first bands of thieves who had been undoubtedly crushed when the blocks released to seal the far passage. The black market was a demanding mistress though, and smarter thieves had come later burrowing around the blocks which were later removed, most likely for building material.
The passage sloped upward. Joy took her voluminous skirts in hand to follow its ascent to the antechamber beyond. The air within was close and stale, but she'd visited many tombs before and had grown somewhat accustomed to it. She'd barely traversed the smallish room when a slight noise behind her sent her heart rate escalating.
Turning, Joy lifted her lantern high. Nothing moved beyond the golden arc. She froze, listening. There it came again, a faint disturbance of pebbles as if moved by invisible feet. Gooseflesh broke out over her arms. Ridiculous tales of a mummy curse sprang into her brain. Common sense told her there was no such thing, yet her imagination ran away and considered it a viable possibility.
Her hand trembled. Shadows danced and jumped about the chamber. She attempted to control her erratic breathing. An impossible task. Her stomach clenched as she stared at the darkened doorway. Fleeing was out of the question. There was only one way in or out. The specter--or whatever it was--could just as easily follow her deeper into the depths.
I'll stand and fight. There is no other option.
The muscles in her arm ached as she waited for her doom. The scratching sound came again, echoed and magnified in the small space, and she flinched. It floated closer and she swore she heard the inhalation of another person. Sweat drenched her back and trickled down her temples. Would it never show itself? Finally, she couldn't stand the not knowing.
"Who's there? Show yourself this instant!"
Shadows gathered in the corners and at the doorway seconds before it joined her. In the light from her wildly shaking lantern, she recognized the man--for it was merely a man and not a mummy--as the camel racer from the afternoon. She dropped her arm as a wave of relief swept through her body. "What are you doing here?" Belatedly, she realized she didn't know his name.
"Following you. I intend to finish what we started earlier." He shrugged and his linen suit, much like the one she'd seen on Max, tightened over his undeniably fit frame. His raven dark hair gleamed in the weak light while his eyes behind the glasses sparkled with determination--and heated intent.
The relief she'd claimed moments before dissolved as shivers tumbled down her spine. Whoever this man was, whatever he represented, she wanted the chance to explore why he made her feel completely undone yet curiosity and impatience won out over caution. "I have no business with you." Except to steal another mindless kiss that will make me forget the horrible things I've seen in Egypt.
"Is that so?" He pounced so fast she had no time to fend him off as he pinned her against a wall and crushed his mouth to hers.